The Portland Timbers head north to take on the Seattle Sounders today in their first playoff meeting since joining Major League Soccer. Over the course of the regular season the two teams went 1-1-1 against each other, so this home and away series will give them a chance to break that deadlock on the way to the MLS Cup.
This is the best rivalry in American soccer, and for the two teams to meet in the playoffs could yield the most exciting match of the year.
Here is what you need to know about the two teams:
The Timbers come into this game on an eight game unbeaten streak, having won five of those eight including a 1-0 victory over the Sounders. The Timbers have been getting things done thanks to some consistency along their back line and in the center of the pitch that was missing in the middle of the season. It is the defense that has carried the Timbers on their unbeaten run, allowing only three goals in the last eight games, and it will be up to that defense to keep their shape and communicate well if they want to stop a potent Seattle attack.
The biggest question mark for the Timbers continues to be Diego Valeri and how much he can contribute to the cause without setting him back. Valeri has been dealing with an adductor strain that has been haunting him since the Timbers' match against RSL at the end of August, still managing to play in each game since then except for the last match up against the Sounders. Valeri will almost certainly get the start today, but how long he can stay on the pitch and remain effective is a big question mark. If the Timbers can grab an early lead then Valeri will likely be taken off shortly after the half, but a tight game or one that sees the Timbers down a goal could see him on the pitch for longer.
The other variable in an otherwise stable Timbers line-up will be who lines up at forward. The Timbers have stayed true to their 4-2-3-1 formation for most of the season, making tweaks but rarely wholesale changes, so picking out the lone striker will have a big impact on the Timbers' style of play. Jose Adolfo Valencia has gotten the start in recent matches as the Timbers look to stretch their opponents and make use of his speed and occasional dribbling ability to get around defenders. Meanwhile, Maximiliano Urruti is making his way back from a hamstring strain that has seen him confined to the sidelines until this week, when he was back in the team warm-ups and looking fit. Also waiting in the wings to reclaim his former starting spot is Ryan Johnson, the goal leader among the Timbers' option at the number nine spot. Urruti may be unlikely to start, but Johnson definitely could as a striker that thrives on rebounds and tap-ins, something that Valencia has yet to develop a nose for.
After a run of terrible form to close out the season, the Sounders have now put together three games without a loss. A large part of pumping the breaks on the Sounders' slide has been their switch to a 4-4-2 diamond formation in the attack which allows their forwards, as well as Clint Dempsey in the attacking midfield spot, a free role.
Over at Sounder at Heart, they have taken a look at the Sounders' new formation and just how their personnel will fit into it, while NBC Sports has their own article up on the set up featuring plenty of quotes from Clint Dempsey.
As both articles point out, the Sounders will be making use of the diamond midfield to get their best players on the field, with Dempsey, Eddie Johnson, and either Obafemi Martins, who is unlikely to play according to Sounder at Heart's Dave Clark, or Lamar Neagle being given free reign to combine and test the Timbers' defense. This will, necessarily, limit the Sounders' options in the midfield, with true box to box players needed to fill out the formation. Mauro Rosales is the true odd man out here, as his wide play-making style and general lack of defensive bite could leave the Sounders wide open to a Timbers counter-attack.
The Sounders will see one major change to their line-up against the Timbers thanks to Michael Gspurning's puzzling red card on Wednesday for catching the ball outside of the box and preventing a goal-scoring opportunity for the Colorado Rapids on Wednesday. In Gspurning's place will be veteran keeper Marcus Hahnemann. Hahnemann started four games for the Sounders this season, giving up four goals and making six saves along the way.
In addition to the change in goal, the Sounders could be without young right-back DeAndre Yedlin, known for getting forward down the wing and having terrible hair, who tweaked his ankle on Wednesday. Yedlin will be a game-time decision, according to comments from Sigi Schmid at yesterday's practice. If Yedlin cannot go, Brad Evans will likely be taken out of the midfield to fill in for him, something that would be a definite advantage for the Timbers as the next options for the Sounders as box-to-box midfielders are definite drop-offs from Evans.
The Timbers have not had much luck in the CLink, only coming away with one point from two matches there this season. However, both matches have been close, hard fought encounters, so if the Timbers can keep it close they will have an excellent chance of moving on tot he next round. However, a tie or the Timbers' first win at Seattle since joining MLS would give the Timbers a huge advantage going into Thursday's home leg.
Watch it on: NBC Sports
Kick off: 7:00 pm at CenturyLink Field in Seattle, WA
Portland Timbers: 1st seed in the Western Conference. (57 points)
Seattle Sounders: 4th seed in the Western Conference. (52 points)